Around nine years ago Scott Blake was walking to St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral when he noticed a window in the tower at the historic James Lee House in Victorian Village had been blown out, exposing it to the elements.
Scott Blake, president of the Victorian Village Inc. Community Development Corp., has been working for years to see a new use for the historic James Lee House.
(Daily News/Andrew Breig)
Blake, president of the Victorian Village Inc. Community Development Corp., was incensed that the window had not been replaced and began making inquiries about who should be making the repairs only to be told that he could fix the window himself if he cared so much.
So that’s just what he did.
“I got to see the house and really fell in love with it,” Blake said. “I thought something’s got to be done with this or it’s going to be lost. It only had a few years left before it would be beyond repair.”
Now, the Lee House, just like Victorian Village, is poised for a major comeback. Several projects in the pipeline, including the Lee House, will help breathe new life into the historic neighborhood.
For Blake, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years and run the Victorian Village CDC for seven, the projects happening there are the fruits of dogged determination and persistence in the face of a city that appeared to collectively shrug its shoulders at the district’s needs.
“I guess in the big picture of the history of the neighborhood it’s been a blink of the eye,” Blake said. “The process over the last seven years has sometimes been frustrating and often rewarding.”
The 10-square-block neighborhood bound by Poplar Avenue, Danny Thomas Boulevard, Madison Avenue and Manassas Street is abuzz with activity.
Thanks to funds from the city of Memphis, the Mallory Neely museum opened in November after being closed in 2005 because of budget cutbacks. Financial support from the Victorian Village CDC and the Association for the Preservation of Antiquities has allowed the Woodruff- Fontaine House to enlarge its event space, giving it enough room to host 400 people.
The nearby Lee House is being transformed into a bed-and-breakfast inn. The city transferred the long-dormant property to Jose Velazquez and his company, which plan to invest around $2 million in private capital to reconstruct the antebellum home. Built in 1847 and listed in the Library of Congress, the original home of Memphis College of Art sat empty for more than half a century.
Blake is pleased but not satisfied with the progress that is being made on the neighborhood’s historic homes and is exploring multiple avenues for growing the residential base in Victorian Village while making sure it serves as a crucial link between two major employment areas, the Downtown core and the Memphis Medical Center.
“Our goal is to really bring this back as a very diverse urban neighborhood and what’s really attracting people now to places to live are places where you can walk or bike to work, and have shops and produce in a really tight grouping and that’s beginning to happen,” Blake said.
Kevin Woodyard, a native Memphian with vast experience in the food industry, is turning the old Neely’s Bar-B-Que location into a creperie called Monsieur DeMarcus, Woodyard’s middle name.
Woodyard, who learned the art of crepe making after moving to New York City 10 years ago, said Victorian Village was a perfect location because it was in between the economic hubs of the Downtown core and the Medical Center.
“I wanted to be closer to tourism, which is the Downtown area, and an area like the Medical District, where there will always be great employment,” Woodyard said.
Design work is underway on a remaking of Morris Park, the city park at the corner of Poplar and Manassas.
Victorian Village Inc. and partners Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, Memphis Medical Center, The Urban Child Institute and St. Mary’s contributed half the $70,000 cost of the design work with the city chipping in the other half. Blake said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is also committing $700,000 toward the park’s transformation.
“The really critical things we’re addressing are the safety issue, the lighting issue and how we find out ways to make the park welcoming to everybody, especially the children and families of Le Bonheur because they don’t have a place to go outside and enjoy the sunlight and be in green grace,” Blake said. “We’re imagining pavilions, gathering areas, new children’s play areas and improved basketball courts, which are an important element because that’s the only place where many people have a chance to go outside and get some recreation.”
Blake said one of his main goals is infill housing that complements the neighborhood while leaving in place a diverse price mixture that allows Victorian Village to maintain its diversity.
“We’re beginning to look at bundling available properties, encouraging developers to come in and take more than one parcel and making sure we keep the diversity in terms of the price range of housing and multi-family housing,” said Bake. “That’s critical to us because we’re such an unusual place. We have people come from all income levels and we want to preserve that.”
Blake envisions making Jefferson an urban pedestrian and bicycle “greenway” that provides a major link to Downtown and the $33 million Main Street to Main Street project.
The city has long-range plans for a protected bicycle lane on Jefferson from Cleveland Street to Third Street. A similar bicycle lane is planned for Virginia Avenue in a key link to Channel 3 Drive and the Memphis end of the Harahan Rail Bridge’s planned pedestrian and bicycle overpass.
Blake would like to see traffic on Jefferson in Victorian Village sizably reduced, with streetscaping and lighting making it more inviting for pedestrians and bicyclists.
“We’d really like to make that a greenway that ties the whole system together,” he said.
Downtown Memphis Commission President Paul Morris said the revival of Victorian Village, which has 24 properties on the National Historic Register within four blocks, was about preserving Memphis’ character and identity.
“If we care about ourselves as a community, we must work hard to preserve our authentic character and identity, while improving our neighborhoods,” Morris said. “Sadly, for many decades, this unique neighborhood was largely neglected. But over the past few years the city, the DMC, and neighborhood stakeholders have been investing and improving the neighborhood.”